Mr Benn and the Anatomy of Extended Writing

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Me and Mr Benn

I was born in 1975, and the cult children’s animation Mr Benn was part of my childhood. I must have watched re-runs, since the only series made (which consisted of a paltry 13 episodes) was first aired in 1971. For the uninitiated, Mr Benn employed a recurring plot sequence. The bowler-hat-wearing protagonist would leave his home each morning and end up in a strange fancy dress shop, run by an even more mysterious shopkeeper. The nameless proprietor would show Mr Benn the delights of his shop and help him to choose a costume to wear for the rest of the episode. And here’s the rub: whatever outfit Mr Benn shimmied into out back, when he emerged was dressed appropriately for the adventure he was about to embark upon. Whether dressed as a cowboy, a spaceman or a knight, Mr Benn was always prepared.

In some respects Mr Benn’s costume-wearing shenanigans provides an interesting way of thinking about how many of our students approach academic writing. Like Mr Benn, they try and ready themselves for whatever adventure or challenge they are about to meet – they choose the most appropriate writing clothes for the written environment, or genre, they are about to inhabit. Yet perhaps this is where my metaphor breaks down, since what I think we want as teachers is for our students to dig much deeper than the superficiality of mere costume change. Wearing different clothes is essentially pretending, and what we surely wish for our students is for them to write in a more authentic, authoritative and genuinely academic fashion: to understand what it means to write like a historian, a scientist or a geographer.

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A way forward

I wonder if sometimes we might actually contribute towards this ultimately reductive approach to extended writing. I am thinking here of the pervasive use of wall displays of connectives, the over-reliance on crude acronyms for thinking about paragraph structures (PEE, PEED, PEAL, etc) and the use of snazzy laminated placemats for everything from proofreading prompts to convention cues. Whilst I am not entirely against some of these strategies – in the right context and used in the right manner – I am increasingly coming to believe that they are not fundamentally helping our students to write with more sophistication and precision.

What I believe is required is the explicit teaching of the deep structures that underpin academic discourse. Until address this more often and more systematically as part of our daily pedagogy through the interface of the teacher as the main resource in the room, I am not sure that our students’ extended writing will be demonstrably better. What we need to teach lies beneath the disguise of clothing and more within those anatomical structures that cannot be seen. If we get the teaching of these structures right students’ writing really will be able to meet the demands of writing with clarity and force.

The Anatomy of Extended Writing

Over the past few months I have attempted to provide the teachers in my school with a sense of what these structures might look like. This work has grown into what I am calling the Anatomy of Extended Writing. Drawing upon a wide range of different source material, and spending a disproportionate amount of my summer break pouring over a computer screen, I have devised an initial set of 18 modes of extended writing – functions or purposes of writing that I think are commonly used across subjects, such as Making Points, Evaluating the Significance of Data, Providing Definitions and Summarising Findings.

Within each of these modes I have identified a further set of specific sentence structures for each different facet of the overall function. So this might mean that for Reporting Results and Findings (coded 13.0), I have ‘commenting on specific visual data’ (coded 13.1), and ‘referring to the results from surveys’ (coded 13.6). As you can see, both the overarching mode and the specific sentence forms beneath them are numbered: the main modes are numbered 1-18, with each specific sentence type appended using a decimal point. I think this codification is crucial for helping to create a shared understanding of the different sentence functions. Over time, I see this coding system enabling teachers within and across departments to identify, teach and practise specific sentence constructions.

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Producing an Exemplar

The first step in turning these sentence forms into something tangible is for subjects to identify the specific genres they are trying to teach – the kinds of writing they are gearing their students towards producing. In most cases, there will only be one or two over-arching academic genres that operate within a discipline. In English Literature, I have identified three prevalent genres: the comparative study, the unseen analysis or appreciation and the critical opinion essay, where students have to engage in some form of opinion about a character, theme or relationship. There may well be others, but in the short term, these are going to be the ones for which we develop specific anatomies.

From the identification of genres, the next stage is to draw upon the sentence structures contained within each of the modes, and use them to produce exemplar writing – an excellent piece of work that provides teachers and students with a template for success within that academic genre. The important thing to remember here is that this exemplar piece of writing should be devised with the highest point at which the department teaches in mind. This model will effectively become the ultimate expression of excellence which can then, assuming that A level is the highest point the subject teaches, be worked backwards to produce exemplification of high standards at GCSE and Key Stage Three.

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Codifying Sentence Structures

These exemplar pieces of extended academic writing or anatomies will then be coded, through reference to the sentence structures identified in the modes of writing. It is my hope that over time my initial list of 18 functions will grow and that within these functions additional coded constructions can be established, effectively creating a continual on-going database. The point of codification is twofold. to establish a consistency of approach towards teaching extended writing both within departments and across subjects and key stages. It has always struck me as perverse that with one teacher a student learns to structure their writing using a hamburger metaphor, another with some derivation of PEE and another with something else entirely.

This term I have spent a bit of time teaching my A level students some of these sentence forms. For instance, we are currently preparing for a 3,000 word comparative essay, and to help better structure my students’ writing I have been relentlessly getting them to practise writing the opening manoeuvres of a paragraph. In the past I have been rather too guilty of focusing on deconstructing whole texts, when mine and my students’ time would probably have been better served in honing specific sentence forms. In many respects, this approach to developing extended writing through focusing on sentence construction is not a million miles away from Doug Lemov’s Golden Sentence, David Didau’s Slow Writing and some of the excellent work produced by the likes of Andy Tharby and Chris Curtis.

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‘One True Sentence’

It seems that developing students’ understanding of the sentence is currently where a number of educators are converging, which to me makes perfect sense. Two of my favourite writers of the Twentieth Century are F. Scott Fitzgerald and Ernest Hemingway: both writing around the same time and addressing similar Modernist concerns. Yet to read their writing you may well think they were poles apart – the one writes with an ornate flamboyance and overly decorative style, whilst the other strips everything back in the hope of finding the ‘one true sentence.’ Beneath this superficial difference seems to me a more striking similarity. Both writers were obsessed with the sentence: in finding out the optimum construction for conveying meaning or truth. Where Fitzgerald believed in more, Fitzgerald strove for less.

I am not suggesting that the Anatomies of Extended Writing are about finding the ‘one true sentence’. What I am suggesting is that the sentence is the unit of language we should pursue with our students to help them better understand and produce the real thing, rather than having to pretend through dressing up!

‘After a while I went out and left the hospital and walked back to the hotel in the rain.’ Hemingway, A Farewell to Arms

‘So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.’ F. Scott. Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby

Further Resources:

Here is a link to my Teaching and Learning Presentation

Here is a link to a PDF version of The Anatomy of Extended Writing